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In a remote world, HR departments are rushing to make onboarding feel more human

February 15, 2022, 8:08 PM UTC
a woman wearing headphones waves at a computer
The pandemic has forced HR teams to focus on what makes an organization effective.
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It’s never been easy to welcome an employee onto a new team — typically, they get a brief orientation on the first day, and then it’s off to the races as they scramble to figure out how to thrive in their new role.

But the pandemic has made things even more difficult, with so many Americans starting jobs virtually, logging in the first day and struggling to navigate a new workplace without the benefits of meeting their colleagues in-person.

As a result, human resource departments have had to adjust their onboarding programs and learn how to make a new employee feel welcome via Zoom, Teams, and Slack.

The pandemic has forced HR teams to focus on what makes an organization effective, argues Rena Kokalari, senior human resources director at the International Rescue Committee. And it all comes down to one simple idea, she says: “We’re left with this fundamental reality that people are what make any organization tick. And that we need to take care of people.” 

The issue then becomes, how do companies operating remotely engage with their employees from the very first moment they are hired? The HR team at NVIDIA, named America’s best place to work in 2022 by Glassdoor, has new hires do all the necessary paperwork before their first day so that the orientation is more focused on company values. New employees at NVIDIA receive a welcome note from their manager, and they’re paired with a new hire ambassador who’s available to answer all their questions.

“The most important thing is making sure that human connection happens. It’s a lot easier when we’re all sitting together in the same room,” says Beau Davidson, VP of employee experience at NVIDIA, which offers employees both in-person, hybrid, and remote work options. That includes “making sure managers are equipped with knowing how to set up their employees, engage with them, and ensure that no one is left behind.

Onboarding shouldn’t just be left to a manager — it’s much more effective when employees are also introduced to a point person who can help them navigate their new workplace. This provides new employees with logistical help and also gives them a way to start forming deeper connections with their colleagues. 

At the IRC, individuals are connected with a so-called “lateral buddy,” someone outside of the new employee’s department who can help new hires learn more about the company.

This emphasis on connecting new employees with a colleague speaks to the value of fostering connections between coworkers when onboarding. “If we know about other coworkers who share common interests, then we’re able to introduce them to other people who have common interests, and who they may form a stronger bond with more quickly because of those commonalities,” says Felicia Joy, adjunct assistant professor of strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “It also allows us to help them with resources that they might not know about that will be helpful for them.” 

Both IRC and NVIDIA purposefully tailor their onboarding process to fit the individual preferences of the new employee. At IRC, Kolkari shares onboarding plans with new hires a month before they join, and she’s found it gives them a sense of agency over the experience.

NVIDIA also adjusts its onboarding process based on individual and department needs. Davidson argues that human resource departments that don’t follow this model will fall behind. And he thinks that customizing an employee’s experience with HR should expand to general employee benefits.

Both human resource specialists warn managers to not overwhelm new employees with too much information, and they recommend that onboarding should take a slower pace to accommodate an employee’s needs. Kokalari says that with this cadence, onboarding could take up to a year.

IRC has also worked hard to get creative when bringing on new employees, including creating departmental yearbooks where staff can share fun facts and photos. Meanwhile, NVIDIA has made employee feedback a priority. The company uses a suggestion box to regularly provide feedback and do succinct surveys to gauge what employees want from their supervisors.  

It’s all about perspective, Joy says, “If you look at onboarding, not as logistics, but as welcoming another person into a new space, to work alongside others for a common purpose, it changes the way that you roll that experience out, and therefore changes the way that someone feels welcomed when they get to the organization.”

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